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The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) has agreed to consolidate and centralize all 3M Combat Arms Earplug lawsuits pending throughout the federal court system, each raising similar allegations that veterans were left with permanent hearing damage as a result of design defects with the reversible earplugs that were standard issue by the U.S. military between 2003 and 2015.
Over the past few months, more than 635 product liability complaints have already been filed nationwide over hearing loss and tinnitus linked to the earplugs, which are currently pending in 33 different U.S. District Courts.
Plaintiffs raise common questions of fact and law in the complaints, claiming that they were left with hearing loss following military service, and some estimates suggest that thousands of additional cases are likely to be filed in the future.
Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) were originally introduced by Aearo Technologites before it was acquired by 3M Company. The reversible earplugs are designed to serve as traditional earplugs when inserted one way, but the manufacturer indicated that they provided filtered noise reduction when reversed, blocking loud battlefield noises, while allowing the wearer to hear spoken commands.
According to allegations raised in the lawsuits, the manufacturers knew for years that the earplugs were defective, and too short to properly fit in the ear. As a result, military service members were allegedly left without adequate hearing protection, after the earplugs failed to seal the ear canal.
To avoid conflicting rulings and scheduling orders from various different judges nationwide, a motion was filed earlier this year, seeking to transfer all cases to one U.S. District Court for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings.
Following oral arguments heard last week, the U.S. JPML issued a transfer order (PDF) on April 3, indicating that claims brought nationwide will all be centralized before U.S. District Judge Case Rodgers in the Northern District of Florida, who recently oversaw a similar MDL for all Abilify gambling compulsion lawsuits, which resolved earlier this year through a global settlement.
The JPML noted that all parties involved in the Combat Arms earplug litigation agreed with the creation of an MDL, but disagreed about where the cases should be centralized. While 3M Company, which manufactures the earplugs, argued that the cases should be centralized in Minnesota, where the corporate headquarters are located, the panel determined that the Northern District of Florida was the most appropriate venue.
“On the basis of the papers filed and the hearing session held, we find that these actions involve common questions of fact, and that centralization will serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of this litigation,” the judges wrote. “All actions involve common factual questions arising out of allegations that defendants’ Combat Arms earplugs were defective, causing plaintiffs to develop hearing loss and/or tinnitus. Issues concerning the design, testing, sale, and marketing of the Combat Arms earplugs are common to all actions.”
In complex product liability litigation, where a large number of claims are filed throughout the federal court system by individuals who suffered similar injuries as a result of the same product, it is common for the federal court system to centralize the litigation for pretrial proceedings. However, if Combat Arms earplug settlements are not reached during discovery or following a series of early “bellwether” trials, each claim may later be remanded back to the U.S. District Court where it was originally filed to go before a jury.